Not typically thought of as a city with above-ground trains, New York actually boasts 700 linear miles of elevated subway tracks, highways, and bridges—the equivalent of four Central Parks of space. That includes four-and-a-half times as much elevated rail as in Chicago—home of the famous “L” train. A report issued by the nonprofit Design Trust for Public Space and the New York City Department of Transportation proposes managing this underused space more effectively.
The “Under the Elevated” report notes that New York’s elevated infrastructure covers a wide variety of existing spaces under a wide range of jurisdictions. This has made these spaces hard to organize and make sense of. For example, an elevated subway might be owned by the MTA, with the street running under it owned by the DOT. Structural integrity, safety, and access for inspections and maintenance are potential challenges to development of these spaces. That’s why the DOT stepped forward as a lead agency, since it has an ownership interest in most of the sites and is institutionally equipped to work with other agencies involved.
The report’s researchers created two “pop up” parks—one in the Bronx and one under the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown. The Chinatown project included a community bulletin board, a series of chalkboard panels allowing visitors to respond to questions left by the design team, new lighting featuring red LED lights (considered a lucky color in Chinese culture), and seating. The addition of seating was serendipitous, says Neil Gagliardi, the DOT’s director of urban design. The team was surprised that anyone would want to sit and linger in such a noisy location but decided to add chairs when they noticed how popular the temporary seating was at the opening event. The installation also had an unforeseen benefit. “It kept the graffiti away,” Galgliardi says.
The “Under the Elevated” project has attracted plenty of press attention, surprising even its backers. People in cities as far away as Singapore have ordered copies of the report. But it shouldn’t be surprising. The transformation of the derelict High Line into a park was a massive success. A proposal similarly to transform Manhattan’s abandoned Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal into a lavish underground park has been profiled in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; backers have shrewdly dubbed it the Lowline.
The city is moving forward with one of the Design Trust report’s key recommendations by creating a DOT program to initiate projects and respond to ideas from community groups. But officials are being cautious. The vision of “Under the Elevated” isn’t necessarily about building one mind-blowing project. Rather, it’s about fostering incremental improvements and better management. To the project team’s credit, they recognized that, in some cases, the current use of a space may be the best use. Storing city owned equipment beneath overpasses and bridges reduces the need to consume valuable land elsewhere. Some spaces could simply find more efficient use as “bioswales” for passive storm-water management. In a world where too many cities prioritize the sexy over the workaday, it’s good to see New York considering a full-spectrum approach in this program.
Like the High Line, “Under the Elevated” has the potential to influence how the world views underused urban spaces. When New York does something innovative and successful, it grabs the world’s attention. As writer Richard Layman put it, “Global cities don’t just take, they give.” “Under the Elevated” has given us a new way of thinking about how to make better use of the forgotten spaces under our elevated transportation infrastructure.